Help Yourself

Until 2006, Minneapolis city government was burdened with an inefficient calling system. The Minneapolis Blue Pages telephone book listed more than 270 city government phone numbers. The city received about 16,000 calls daily, with as much as 30 percent being misrouted. The Minneapolis Police Department reported between 60 percent and 85 percent of its calls were misdirected.

In 2006, city officials decided a change was in order and developed a 311 call center to provide an easy access point to city services. The 311 center enabled residents to place a single phone call to reach city agencies, including public works, regulatory services, community planning and economic development, animal control, police, fire and human resources.

Though it was an immediate hit with city residents, the call center outgrew its success as it became overburdened with thousands of calls daily. Within the first month of operation, nearly 9,000 Minneapolitans accessed 311, and within a year Minneapolis 311 received 340,000 calls. In 2007, the annual calls jumped to 440,000. The increasing demand prompted city officials to choose between hiring more staff for its call center or seeking an alternative method to handle the influx.

Efforts to enhance 311 in Minneapolis and elsewhere reflect a larger trend for 311 services nationally. Whether at the city, county or state level, 311 programs often provide Web self-service for citizens to alleviate 911 nonemergency calls, provide better service and save money. These systems are often cited as examples of how governments can do more with less, while simultaneously becoming more cost-effective at the service level.

According to Gartner, an IT research and advisory company, 311 call centers represent a first phase of centralized municipal service. The second phase is a multiple channel service delivery center that usually incorporates phone, Web and mail services. The third phase is utilizing data collected from 311 centers to further enhance service.

Mature 311 system deployments provide data and insight into patterns that allow agencies to take pre-emptive action. However, the third phase is relatively new for governments, with only an estimated 10 percent of the country's municipalities implementing this feature, said Rishi Sood, vice president of Gartner. But more governments that use 311 Web self-service offerings are expected to use data to their advantage in coming years.

"What's really new and next-generation is local governments are starting to mine this data as an intelligent modeling tool to understand trends really quickly and develop a response mechanism to address common city complaints before they become too big," Sood said. "It enables governments to be reactive and proactive to citizens' problems."

Land of Too Many Calls

In 2007, as an alternative to hiring additional 311 call staff, Minneapolis offered a 311 Web self-service feature for citizens submitting minor police reports and requesting public works services. The Minneapolis 311 Web self-service initially offered 13 services, eventually adding 14 more services in August 2007 to keep up with demand.

"With that kind of growth, we had to look at options on how [to] not continue to add staff and still provide the same level of service and quick response," said Don Stickney, assistant director of Minneapolis 311. "We found the key strategy was a robust self-service offering."

City officials soon declared the new Web offering a success: Of the city's nonemergency services available, 21 percent of requests were made online, rather than by phone.

Online service requests include animal control, cable complaints, environmental violations, and crime and pothole reports. At first, the most commonly used Web self-service was for sidewalk snow and ice issues, however, requests for graffiti removal now top the list.

Citizens who utilize the Web self-service can attach a photo to their request to help city officials accurately identify the claim. For each claim, citizens receive e-mails on the status of their requests. The 311 system, in turn, creates a detailed interaction history for every contact, including key milestones tracked by an agency and defined service-level agreements to provide

Chandler Harris  |  Contributing Writer